A flexible and accessible online study skills resource
Type of snapshot
Central services provision e.g. library, learning development, e-learning, ICT
Accessible online provision available pre-entry, to support transition
What was the context for this snapshot?
Figure 1. www.napier.ac.uk/getready
‘Get ready for university study’ was originally developed to support students joining university from college, and entering directly into second or third year. It is designed as a self-contained, generic resource that can be accessed flexibly by students, both prior to entry and during the early stages of their programme. It is underpinned by a pedagogical approach that emphasises student participation in their learning.
Content is provided by experienced academic and support staff, with contributions from students. The core study skills advice is written to give the effect of informality, while still clear and concise. A flexible structure allows students to choose to work through units or just dip in, according to need. Design and development is by an experienced learning technologist, who is also an illustrator.
‘Get ready for university study’ was published on the World Wide Web, initially as a way of ensuring access to any pre-entrants. During the first three years of its life, from 2006 to 2009, use increased from a few hundred page loads per month to over ten thousand, with several units ranking in the top ten Google search results for their topic. Feedback from staff, students and other users continues to be positive, and the resource has also become a catalyst for collaboration.
The project was led by Wider Access and Retention Services, Edinburgh Napier University, with funding from the Scottish Funding Council.
Figure 2. Get ready for University study: writing and presenting
What kind of learners were involved in accessing this provision or support?
‘Get ready for university study’ is primarily designed to help students adjust to the culture, environment and requirements of university-level study. Thus, it combines an informal introduction to the university environment with units covering generic aspects of academic literacy, in four main sections: “Getting started at uni”, “Managing uni studies”, “Managing information”, “Writing and presenting”.
Who uses this resource? Although originally intended for direct entrants to years two and three, it quickly became apparent that the content and approach would be useful for a much wider range of students, at different points of transition. Because of its accessibility and flexibility, the resource is now used by a wide range of learners, from pre-entrants to undergraduates, postgraduates, professionals and others.
Locally, ‘Get ready for university study’ increasingly acts as a bank of core materials for academic literacy sessions, and staff throughout the university direct their students to it. Although it does not directly facilitate online student support, for example using online communication tools, a stub “Help and advice” unit is provided, directing students to relevant local services.
What skills or literacies were particularly being addressed?
Planning and design
From the start of development, we wished to create a resource that provided some of the supportive feel of face-to-face support, at a distance.
‘Get ready for university study’ is designed to be encouraging, inclusive, and easy to use. To help create a sense of community and peer support, photos and audio comments from recent students are integrated throughout, providing relevant, credible, informal advice. The relatively informal graphic style is designed both to support content visually, and to engage the broad target group, without distracting.
To help avoid overwhelming the learner with too much new information, section indexes focus on an image of a friendly student, with links presented as a stylised concept map. Informal content summaries provide a quick overview both of each unit, and the section as a whole. Content is simply structured, with the brief introductory information provided in bite size chunks.
A key challenge was to actively involve students in their learning, while also enabling them to “just get to the information quickly”. This was addressed in various ways including:
- Embedding media and activities within a core text (rather than presenting as a series of longer, self-contained media objects)
- Providing a perpetual drop-down menu, linking to all units
- Cross-linking freely from body text throughout.
The resource is designed to be self-contained and to provide learners with an ‘essential minimum’, so where possible avoids external links.
Visitor statistics show users navigating freely from one section to another, for example from ‘Academic posters’ to ‘Report writing’ to ‘Writing style’, to ‘Oral presentations’ to ‘Referencing’.
‘Get ready for university study’ is intended primarily for self-directed study. To facilitate this, it includes a variety of informal activities and simple self-assessment tools, custom designed to actively engage students in their learning. Where possible, constructive feedback is provided.
A set of learning objects was developed, based on two complementary formats:
- ‘Mini’ activities (up to 6 screens) – focusing on a single topic and designed to be accessed in the context of the main unit text. Typically, these take the user under three minutes to explore.
- ‘Rich’ activities (up to 20 screens) – more complex, multi-screen learning objects, which may cover several related topics. Each combines a variety of media, activities and self-assessment questions, and may include a running score and cumulative feedback. Typically, these take the user up to ten minutes to work through.
Both formats are designed for reuse, for example the same “key steps” flowchart or drag-and-drop vocabulary exercise can be populated with content for different topics (See Appendix 5). Each learning object is self-contained, so can be used in other contexts, for example within a VLE.
In its widest sense, accessibility is key to design.
- Language is uncomplicated
- Structure and interface is clear and consistent
- Graphics and media are used selectively, and text alternatives provided
- Flash activities are keyboard accessible, and users provided with alternative ways of accessing the information in them.
To ensure flexibility, content is provided in ‘raw’ form wherever possible. For example, each student comment is provided as an individual MP3 file, together with a text transcript.
Accessibility is international
By following accessibility principles for both content and presentation, designers can also help ensure resources are accessible to international learners.
In ‘Get ready for university study’, the clear and concise writing style makes content accessible to learners whose first language is not English; selective use of graphics explains concepts visually; a flexible structure allows materials to be navigated freely at the users’ own pace, and returned to as and when; providing core content as text/HTML also allows it to be translated easily, for example using Google Translate. Where possible, content avoids specific cultural and local references, so that it is relevant to a wide audience.
Who provided the support? How was support provided?
Content is provided by experienced Academic Support staff, with contributions from Napier students. Design and development is by an experienced learning technologist, who is also an illustrator. The resource is published via a university web server, and can be accessed by any learner in the UK or elsewhere, as well as students of the host institution.
The resource is intended primarily for self-directed study and includes a variety of informal activities, many of which include simple self-assessment tools. Locally, it increasingly acts as a bank of core materials for academic literacy sessions, and staff throughout the university use it as a basis for further study support work. Although it does not directly facilitate online student support, for example via online communication tools, a stub “Help and advice” section is provided, directing students to relevant local services.
The resource is promoted to new and potential students in various university publications, including the prospectus, public website and student portal. Promotion to staff also results in individual recommendations, via course materials, etc.
Evaluation and testing
There have been three main stages in evaluation: 1. Pilot evaluation 2. User testing of the redeveloped resource 3. Ongoing monitoring and testing
During summer 2005, an initial set of pilot materials was distributed to bridging course students, who were of a wide range of ages and backgrounds. An evaluation questionnaire was distributed to participants, and in January 2006 a focus group was run.
Responses gave useful insight into appeal, usability, and content, which informed the next stage of development. As would be expected for adult learners, while students enjoyed the online activities and found them helpful, they also needed to “just get to the information easily”. Possibly for this reason, users also suggested that combination of photos and text was more effective than video “talking heads”, for the current purpose.
Overall, staff found that students who had accessed the pilot materials showed improved performance in assessments.
In early 2007, after initial redevelopment, a user evaluation was conducted, testing first impressions, look and feel, usability, structure and content. Based on feedback received, the resource was further refined, before publication in its current form. Ongoing evaluation is informed by monitoring and analysis of visitor statistics, responses to an online evaluation form, and informal feedback from staff and students. New content and activities are tested as they are developed.
Benefits, outcomes, and lessons learned
‘Get ready for university study’ is hosted on a public university web server, and can be accessed by any learner in the UK or elsewhere, as well as by students of the host institution. Publication as a self-contained resource has many advantages; for example, independence of a central content management system can enable more flexible and responsive development.
Locally, ‘Get ready for university study’ is promoted to new and potential students in various university publications, including the prospectus, public website and student portal, module and programme materials.
To maintain awareness throughout the academic year, regular announcements are targeted separately to staff and students, timed to coincide with key stages of the student journey. Individual departments and staff also direct students to the resource, for example, to complement the more specialised academic literacy support provided by individual Schools and the Library.
Nationally, the resource is represented in several higher education portals. It has recently been successfully promoted to the post-16 sector, and it is also planned to link units from the national repository Jorum, as “resource stubs”. Statistics indicate a high number of users recommending the resource via email, blogs, discussion boards, print and online teaching materials. As ‘Get ready for university study’ develops, and as awareness grows, there is increasing evidence of external teaching staff directing student cohorts to it.
The World Wide Web is increasingly open to authors, publishers and learners, and is particularly suited to the facilitation of self-directed learning. Without losing sight of specific local needs, it is worth considering potential wider use of digital resources, from the start of development.
It is well known that there is a proliferation of learning literacy materials available online. However, this need not deter the purposeful use of local expertise to meet new and emerging needs. Even where there appears to be an abundance of materials, a creative approach can still generate an original and relevant resource, of value to today’s learners.
With the increasing expansion of connectivity worldwide, it is now possible for high-quality online materials to reach a wide audience. The development of ‘Get ready for university study’ has shown how, with the right combination of skills, it is possible to create an effective and well-used online service, even with a relatively small team.
Visitor statistics for ‘Get ready for university study’ show increasing external use. Total page loads now average over 10,000 per month, with users accessing the resource from over 100 different countries.
Feedback from both staff and students continues to be positive.
- “Many resources of this type are targeted at non-traditional students. Edinburgh Napier University’s more inclusive approach allows us to reach out to all sections of the student population” Edinburgh Napier University Student Adviser, January 2009.
Comments from staff and students
- “This is a very useful resource, good look and feel and informative content.”
- “Like the friendly vibe”
- “Bright and non-complicated”
- “Doesn’t direct you to external sites – which is good!”
- “Fun as it is good to have an element of interactivity as opposed to reading all the time.”
- “Good tool to listen to genuine students…also good for dyslexic students who have difficulty with lots of reading”
- “Content was really useful”
- “I particularly liked the interactive tasks“
- “Bright, colourful, accessible, and very helpful”
Case study 1: Local use
‘Get ready for university study’ is used by Library staff at Edinburgh Napier University to supplement more advanced and subject-specific support provided via Blackboard.
What was your purpose in accessing the resource?
“I have a remit for International students and have linked this to my webpage / Wiki”
What attracted you to the resource?
“Bright, colourful, accessible, and very helpful” Learning Centre Manager, Edinburgh Napier University Library, February 2009.
It is common for individual staff to produce their own study skills support materials. As a consequence, while topics covered may be similar, consistency is inevitably variable, and advice may conflict, even within the same school.
Providing a generic online introduction to key learning literacy skills, in this case led by a unit with specific expertise in student support, helps gives a common “starting point” for students, as well as avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort by staff. By making use of a high quality central resource, staff are freed to concentrate effort on more targeted support, specific to their subject areas.
Case study 2: External adaptation
The project team was contacted by a Wider Access /Transition practitioner, with a request to use and adapt some of the activities in ‘Get ready for university study’.
What was your purpose in accessing the resource?
“Conducting research around what other universities offered to students as transitional advice/activities”
What attracted you to the resource?
“The … site is very eye catching and relays pertinent academic considerations for new (and existing?) students in an accessible, interactive and modern format. The interactive topics … develop personal awareness in an informal, accessible way. I liked the fact that the activities were not assessed allowing for students to dip in and out of the sessions as applicable, at their own pace. I also liked the menus displayed as spider-diagrams for ease of use and the option to listen to students. I’ve been very impressed by the amount of useful information for students contained within this resource. It has inspired our college to revisit the look and use of technology when supporting students in transition through our VLE. Although we are developing our own online transitional activities, we will still be linking to pages [ in this resource ] as they simply cannot be bettered.” Tutor for Transition and Widening Participation, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Newman University College, February 2009.
Permission was given to adapt some of the ‘Get ready for university study’ materials. In addition, “we have made links to the site on our current Study Skills VLE page. Feedback from students has been very positive.”
Case study 3: International access
Edinburgh Napier University attracts a large number of international students. ‘Get ready for university study’ can be used to help prepare potential and current students for the equirements of university study in the UK.
Why do users access the resource?
Since the transition and literacy topics addressed are both generic and introductory, ‘Get ready for university study’ has a particularly broad audience. Because it is public, users discover it in many different ways: directly from internet search engines; from recommendations from friends and colleagues, on recommended resource listings in course materials and VLEs.
What attracts users to the resource?
A key aim was to provide the supportive feel of face-to-face support, at a distance. The supportive and direct writing style of the primary author is equally clear and appealing in the ‘snippets’ of search engine results, and for a public online resource this is of great value. During development of the resource, general patterns of use were monitored. Particularly of interest was the effect of the maturation of online translation tools, such as Google Translate.
Individual units rank highly in relevant search results, both nationally and internationally. While many users initially access individual units for a specific purpose, for example to find a quick reference on “Report writing” or “Academic posters”, many explore other sections of the resource, save or recommend pages, or return later (often by a different route). Visitor statistics show users from all parts of the world, with a growing number from developing countries, and evidence of users translating content online. Source: ‘Get ready for university study’ visitor statistics, September 2006 to date.
We are currently working on new content, with work due to end during Summer 2009. However, there are still areas which would benefit from further developed, both in content and delivery. As can be seen from the case studies, there are many ways the resource could be further extended, adapted, and shared. Perhaps it will be possible to do so in the future.
There are many issues in the management of online resources, from funding and maintenance, to copyright and ownership. But there are just as many opportunities. Although other resources cover similar topics, we feel we have shown how, with the right combination of skills and support, it is still possible to provide an original service, of genuine value.
As Google might say, quality and relevance is the key.
Anne Chirnside Head of Wider Access and Retention Services, Edinburgh Napier University firstname.lastname@example.org Mary Hutchison Learning Technologist, Edinburgh Napier University email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org March 2009
Accessibility is International. Hutchison, M & Chirnside, A. (2009) Poster. Napier staff conference 2009: Internationalising the curriculum. Edinburgh Napier University.
Get ready for university study, http://www.napier.ac.uk/getready (Accessed March 2009). Edinburgh Napier University.
Get ready for university study: Development of a flexible online study skills resource. Chirnside, A & Hutchison, M, (2007). Edinburgh Napier University. (Unpublished evaluation report)
Jorum, http://www.jorum.ac.uk (Accessed March 2009).